Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Ad Hoc: Five Identities

Written by Andrew Beckerman
The artists that make up Ad Hoc’s latest show, 5 Identities, 5 Destinations, fall under the rubric of New Contemporary. Essentially an academic term, “New Contemporary” denotes artists who traffic in historically low art mediums—comics, illustrations—but have elevated that low art to a higher level. This means little more than placing these artworks in a context where they’ll be regarded as fine art, as the difference has little to do with the aesthetics of New Contemporary and has much more to do with the economics.
The artists that make up Ad Hoc’s latest show, 5 Identities, 5 Destinations, fall under the rubric of New Contemporary. Essentially an academic term, “New Contemporary” denotes artists who traffic in historically low art mediums—comics, illustrations—but have elevated that low art to a higher level. This means little more than placing these artworks in a context where they’ll be regarded as fine art, as the difference has little to do with the aesthetics of New Contemporary and has much more to do with the economics. Think for a moment of the absurdity of drawing a line, which divides artworks into worthwhile (traditional techniques) and unworthy (them newfangled art draw’n’s), regardless of whether or not the art produced is interesting or innovative. You can imagine Emily Gilmore disdainfully drop, “How…quaint.” The elephant in the room—the class politics of the art world—is betrayed in this designation as illustration in and of itself radiates nothing lowbrow. It’s rather the people who are doing the illustrating are, well, riffraff.

However, it’s also a matter of reproducibility. Comics are lowbrow because they’re democratic. They’re relatively cheap and can be easily distributed. Elevating these forms to the level of fine art means making them singular and rare. Sure, you could reproduce the artworks in Five Identities on postcards, but that’s secondary to the actual piece of art hanging on the wall. Of course, in the end, if the legitimation of comics allows the wealthy to enjoy an issue of Eightball or Astonishing X-Men, then cool, and if it allows artists like these five to get their due, both in terms of prestige and money, then so much the better.

While these external concerns could skew ones initial encounter with the exhibit, internally, the themes have much more to do with depictions of femininity than they do with the political economy of the art world. While there’s no single experience of what it is to be a woman, there are certainly patterns and commonalities that are brought out by many of the artists. For example, most of the artworks display thin, idealized forms of femininity, some taken to their (il)logical extreme, as in Molly Crabapple’s Narcissister, which features an impossibly slender woman or Lizz Lopez’s Gonna Get My Baby Back, which has a corseted woman kneeling on a teddy bear as well as a pile of viscera. It’s ambiguous as to whether the entrails are hers or the bears, though I’m not actually sure it matters. Jenn Porreca’s manga-esque subject is distorted, shaped in many ways by her impossible clothing. What’s actually rather perverse is that the subject is beautiful not in spite of how warped it is, but because it’s normal for women to submit their bodies to many kinds of contortion.

As cliché as this might sound, the act of seeing, the act of being on display is an important part of the show. It’s cliché in the sense that it’s an obvious and overused metaphor, but that shouldn’t interfere with the very specific feminist concern that there’s something very distinct about being subject to the male gaze. While everyone is under increasing amounts of scrutiny, all sexes and genders alike, both in terms of pop culture (blogs, memoirs, reality TV) and the ever-increasing mass of the surveillance state, there is the added layer of the way men look at women that constructs their bodies in certain ways.

In Amy Crehore’s Snake Tamer’s Ditty, a man stares out from behind a tree at the naked, adolescent girl lying on the beach. His eyes are wide, either in surprise or lasciviousness (or both). Crabapple’s work contains leering pigmen flush with cash. The women in most of her illustrations are performers, on display for the pigmen, or even for crowds of moneyed, indifferent elites. Really, much of 5 Identities deals with, in some way or another, some compromise between blunt politics and more subtle aesthetic concerns, and it’s the way the individual artists navigate these ideas that makes it worthwhile.
 
Photo courtesy of Ad Hoc Art 

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